It’s not an exaggeration to call J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series one of the most successful franchises in publishing history.
The seven books shattered sales records and broke out beyond their young reader audience to become a mass appeal phenomenon. Harry spawned a major industry of adaptations and licensed products. Even eight years after the series wrapped, interest remains strong.
Rowling keeps the fire burning. Her Pottermore site occasionally releases bits of info and trivia that catch fan attention. And the writers herself is known to drop insights in interviews or on social media (apparently we’ve all been pronouncing “Voldemort” incorrectly).
It’s always a good time to take another look at Harry Potter.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The introduction to the world of Harry Potter and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry remains one of the stronger series launches in recent memory. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone outside the U.S.) introduced us to neglected young Harry Potter. He’s an orphan who lives with his terrible aunt and uncle, forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. On his 11th birthday, he learns he’s a wizard and is intended to attend Hogwarts to train properly.
Harry happily plunges into a new world, one that connects him to his long-dead parents. He begins to learn his own complicated history: dark wizard Voldemort’s reign of terror came to an end when he tried to kill baby Harry (murdering the elder Potters in the process). Instead, Voldemort’s killing curse rebounded on him, freeing the magical world from his tyranny.
At Hogwarts, Harry meets a world of new friends and rivals. He discovers all the fascinating new aspects of the magical world. He’s a natural at Quidditch, the most popular wizard sport (played on broomsticks, naturally). His adventurous and curious spirit meant he couldn’t help but follow the clues when it seemed someone was trying to get to an object of power that had been hidden deep within Hogwarts. With new best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, and under the watchful eye of avuncular headmaster Dumbledore, Harry began his confrontation with the dark forces that had shaped both his past and the road ahead.
Harry was an immediately sympathetic focal point and Rowling cannily translated adolescent dreams of being special and different into something simultaneously fantastical and relatable. The loving details of the wizarding world and the contrast with Harry’s boorish Muggle (i.e., non-magical) relatives remain a strength. The main plot was sturdy and well-constructed, filled with lots of neat little detours that may not have served the plot action, but were indispensable bits of charm and character building. Having read the entire series, it’s also amazing how many seeds for future story Rowling worked into the first novel without ever being obvious about it.
The characters remain the strength of the Harry Potter series. Beyond Harry himself, Rowling crafted the prototypical best friend in the loyal Ron and celebrated the virtues of intelligence with Hermione, giving hope to legions of smart kids everywhere. Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape were excellent foils. Even at the outset Snape was a fascinating creation. Not liking Harry didn’t make him evil, just human, and there were all sorts of hints of the more complicated turns Snape would take down the road. Floating over it all was Dumbledore, the epitome of a gracious, wise mentor to lead Harry through his challenging new world.
Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone demonstrated the right way to craft a story that packed true “All Ages” appeal.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter was eager to return to Hogwarts at the outset of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but faced any number of obstacles just to get there. Once back at school, a series of frightening attacks on students sparked rumors that the legendary Chamber of Secrets had been re-opened.
The Chamber was the purported legacy of Hogwarts co-founder Salazar Slytherin, intended to express his disdain for Muggle-born wizards or those not of “pure blood.” Some familiar faces fell victim to the Chamber before Harry unraveled its mysteries.
Year Two at Hogwarts followed a more plot-intensive course without sacrificing the character work that made fans love the series. Harry grew in confidence, but also faced the downside of living in a tight, gossip-ridden environment like a boarding school. Rowling incorporated more horror and mythology elements with Chamber of Secrets, including a genuinely unnerving trek into the Forbidden Forest for Harry and Ron. She also expanded the series’ view of the wizarding world, getting more deeply into class distinctions, politics and wizard racism.
The major addition was Dobby the House Elf, a fan favorite who expanded the palette of the magic world in some surprising ways. Gilderoy Lockhart, a vain, fame-chasing wizard who came aboard as a new professor, provided an entertaining glimpse into the concept of wizard celebrity. Lucius Malfoy, Draco’s sneering father, came aboard as a significant villain.
Rowling still had time for ideas like Nearly Headless Nick’s “Death Day” party or a variety of new magical concepts. Rowling also provided some crucial background for a few characters, including Hagrid and Voldemort, and began suggesting how some of the more disparate elements of the Harry Potter world fit together.
It’s a sign of Rowling’s skill that she was able to embroider so much into the story that would resonate with adult readers without sacrificing the imagination-packed storytelling that appealed to the kids. This was another entertaining entry.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling dug into the past of the world she’d created and brought it into the present to create all sorts of new complications. When convicted murderer Sirius Black escaped the wizard prison Azkaban, it was serious enough that even the Muggle authorities were alerted. In short order, Harry learned that Black was a traitor who sold his parents out to Voldemort and then murdered 13 people with a single curse. Worse, Black appeared to be eager to track down Harry to finish the job.
Meanwhile, Harry found a mentor in new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin, a school friend of his father’s. Lupin helped Harry learn to deal with the horrific Dementors, the inhuman creatures who guard Azkaban and were on the hunt for Black. Hagrid’s new role at the school was a blessing and a curse, as it provided Malfoy with a new avenue for petty evil. Hermione’s overloaded class schedule baffled all around her and tension with Ron put Harry in the middle. Also new to the cast were: Weasley patriarch Arthur, fascinated by all things Muggle; classmates Cedric Diggory (a Quidditch rival) and Cho Chang (Harry’s incipient crush object); and Divination teacher Sybill Trelawney, a dubious psychic who predicted Harry’s grisly death on a regular basis. The story expanded the magical world further, exploring local wizard town Hogsmeade, while a sequence at the Weasley homestead provided a glimpse of wizard family life.
A tension-packed climax involved the kids and Sirius, Lupin and Snape. The memory of Harry’s parents played a crucial role in the plot and its climax. Sirius’s true story and motives and a rather surprising revelation of treachery that hit close to home landed with real impact. And since Harry Potter wasn’t intended to enjoy a peaceful teenaged life, just when it looked like things might look up, the rug was pulled out from under him.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was an effective outing that introduced some of the series’ most beloved characters. Rowling’s revelation of past events added a lot of depth to the saga. Readers began to get more of a sense of Harry’s parents as actual people and not just symbolic sacrifices. James Potter especially began to come into focus. It was an effective, involving approach that created real emotional stakes for the characters and paved the way for the second half of the Harry Potter saga. It was also another great demonstration of how carefully Rowling constructed this world and series, as important plot points hidden in plain sight came into focus and other seeds planted in the earlier books blossomed in important ways. Rowling explored new shades of familiar characters and came up with another winning installment.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire arrived at the moment when the series had morphed from kid lit success story into a genuine all ages phenomenon. With a higher profile and insane expectations, it had a lot to live up to. J.K. Rowling proved up to the task with an ambitious, dense narrative (nearly double the length of its predecessor) that brought the saga to another level. Rowling never wrote down to her young audience anyway, but with the whole world watching, she upped her game in some surprising ways.
The action opened with another visit to the Weasley homestead, where oft-mentioned eldest brothers Bill and Charlie finally made an appearance. Harry and Hermione accompanied the Weasleys to the Quidditch World Cup (only slightly more chaotic than a typical FIFA tournament). That sojourn continued to expand the boundaries of the magical world, giving readers a glimpse of international wizards. But the good times ended with a group of masked Death Eaters (supporters of Lord Voldemort) torturing a Muggle family for fun. When someone unleashed the symbol of Voldemort into the night sky, panic set in. As the hint of a psychic connection between Voldemort and himself began emerging, Harry was understandably alarmed.
Back at Hogwarts, the students learned that their school would compete with two other European academies of magic in the Triwizard Tournament. One champion from each school would be selected by the Goblet of Fire. Cedric Diggory emerged as the Hogwarts champion, alongside Quidditch cup hero Viktor Krum and the alluring Fleur Delacour as the representatives of the other two schools. When the Goblet also belched forth Harry’s name (he hadn’t entered himself and underage students were banned anyway), he was plunged into the dangerous competition.
Along the way, Harry navigated an intense spotlight, as malicious reporter Rita Skeeter slung mud at Harry and other Hogwarts regulars. As if the usual hormone-fueled drama of the teen years wasn’t enough. Harry and company dealt with crushes, dates to a school dance, jealousy (Harry and Ron had their first significant rift), moodiness and the crunch of an increased school load. Hermione even discovered activism, crusading for the rights of house elves, whether or not the elves were interested in her help and in the face of her friends’ disinterest.
Other new faces included “Mad Eye” Moody, a dark wizard hunter known as an “Auror;” Moody becomes the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, while harboring a few big secrets. The headmasters of the other schools were Madame Maxime, who had some common ground with Hagrid, and Karkaroff, whose checkered past involved both Moody and Snape. Narcissa Malfoy, Draco’s pinched, Aryan mother, made her first appearance. And Winky was a house elf given freedom she didn’t want; she and Harry’s elf friend Dobby landed paid jobs at Hogwarts.
A climactic finale in a twisted maze brought Harry face-to-face with a restored Voldemort. Harry was forced to witness the death of an heroic character and was lucky to escape with his own life. With Minister of Magic Fudge unwilling to accept Voldemort’s restoration, Dumbledore and his allies were forced to set out on their own path.
Rowling had been gradually darkening the Harry Potter series, but the first three books still had a powerful sheen of wish fulfillment to make the more challenging elements of her elaborate allegory go down smoothly. Goblet of Fire was a marked change. Harry became the direct target of a complex murder plot, as he and his classmates began to learn about some of the darker aspects of the magical world. The young characters were exposed to some startling incidents of violence (both physical and emotional) and Rowling began working the idea that even a trusted school like Hogwarts couldn’t completely shield young people from the horrors of the world.
Rowling’s firm grasp of teen psychology grounded the book’s fantasy elements in something relatable. She captured how even good kids can be moody, self-involved and difficult, even downright unlikeable at times. Harry continued to grow and evolve, as did those around him. Rowling revealed some more important details about characters like Hagrid and Snape. And quite craftily, she flipped the script on Harry’s hapless friend Neville. Usually deployed as comic relief, Rowling revealed Neville’s childhood tragedy and how it dovetailed with (and nearly rivaled) Harry’s own.
The death of a significant character was sensitively handled, but also brought the saga’s innocent phase to a distinct end. Characters had died before, but there was something more immediate about this death and its impact on Harry would be profound. Ratcheting up Voldemort’s threat was also a smart move. Throughout the first three books, the villain was an ethereal presence, wafting around in the background. Even in The Sorcerer’s Stone, where he had an active hand in events, he still remained more of a theoretical enemy. Restoring him to power put the series on a very different course that pointed the way toward Rowling’s endgame, while providing Harry and his friends with the crucible that would push them into adulthood.
It’s rare for a massive pop phenomenon like this to meet expectations. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire not only did that, it far exceeded the mark. It’s the linchpin of the series and a daring, absorbing adventure.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on September 29, 2015.